BOSTON -- This was a long way from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, miles from the pomp and circumstance of the made-for-the-club celebration that introduced the Big Three to Miami in July. On this night in October, the Big Three were introduced to reality.
More than three months after they separately announced their diabolical plans on national TV, here were LeBron James and Dwyane Wade after the honeymoon had unceremoniously ended. Sitting opposite each other in the visiting locker room at TD Garden, having taken their first lumps together as teammates, it was no time for grand pronouncements, free-agent recruiting visits or live TV specials.
|More on Heat at Celtics|
|Facts & Rumors|
No matter how great you are or how much money you make, here is where you live in the grind of the NBA: In the cramped, damp quarters of a visiting locker room, with the debris of the game on the floor all around you. Those yellow mop basins that double for ice buckets form a millionaire's obstacle course. Lift up your foot, and there's an ace bandage or dirty sock, a rubber glove or candy wrapper. A flip-flop here, a hip-pad there, all mixed up with highway debris like coffee cups and empty water bottles.
And so it was against this backdrop that James and Wade stepped out from the glow of anticipation and media giddiness and into the teeth of some rugged terrain. It was Celtics 88, Supposed-Best-Team-Ever 80 on Tuesday night, proof on Day 1 of the grind that the Miami Heat are not going 82-0 after all.
"Sorry," Wade said. "... It's just not happening."
Not much went right for the Heat on opening night, but there's plenty of time to analyze that -- and for the Heat to fix it. Miami's struggles offensively were predictable; LeBron and Wade might not have been ready for this under the best of circumstances, and Wade was on the floor with LeBron in a game for the first time since his three-minute stint in the preseason opener. Their feebleness defensively was perhaps more of a surprise, if not a deep concern. Nothing a few more practices and film sessions can't clean up.
But you had to wonder, after the relative ease with which this team was assembled, praised, panned and dissected over the past few months, if LeBron and Wade were ready for all the other stuff -- the wake-up call of actually having to play the games. If they weren't prepared for it when the ball went up in the air at 7:36 p.m. ET Tuesday night -- the start of the most anticipated NBA season of the post-Jordan era -- there's no question they understood when it was over.
"This is a work in progress," James said. "We all know Rome wasn't built in one day, so it's going to take time and we understand that. We have to keep on making progress every day."
James was saying this three hours and 20 minutes after tipoff, from the very same interview podium where he sat five months ago after his last game as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The sounds of the forklifts moving to and fro in the background, transporting seats and floorboards, brought me back to that night -- the night James walked out of this building to the same plaintive whirring, out of one chapter and into another.
The clock had just struck midnight on May 14, and James had once again failed to get his Cavs to the ultimate goal, losing to the Celtics in Game 6 of the conference semifinals. He spoke of how "me and my team" were "going to figure out what's the best possibility for me." He wasn't referring to the Cavs, but rather his team of advisers, marketers, enablers and friends, many of whom flanked him as he made the long walk out of the Garden in defeat.
I asked James to go back to that moment before the game Tuesday night, his debut with his new team. I asked him to compare the feelings of uncertainty, disappointment and doubt he felt on that walk of shame to the emotions that were accompanying him on this next step in the journey.
"At that time, I didn't think that it would be the last moment I wear a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform," James said. "It was disappointing, and I never thought in the back of my mind that I would be somewhere else. But right now as I reflect back on it, I'm excited about this new start. I'm excited about this season. I'm excited about this team and this franchise and I'm glad to get it going in the city where we struggled in previous years."
And then the struggles persisted; the hobgoblins that chased James out of the Garden five months ago still hadn't moved out.
There was Rajon Rondo dishing out 17 creative assists and controlling every movement on the floor. There was Paul Pierce stepping into dagger jumpers, and Ray Allen hitting the final 3-pointer that stopped Miami's comeback with 49.8 seconds left, giving the Celtics an 86-80 lead after they'd once led by 19.
"You've got one of the greatest shooters in NBA history wide open in the corner," said Pierce, who made the pass that led to the shot that sealed the outcome, "it's a no-brainer."
So, too, was the formation of the Big Three in Miami. The championship was supposed to be a formality. Game 1 proved nothing about the certainty of that happening or not happening, but it illustrated everything about how it will not be easy.
"It's not a reason to panic right now," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose head will be spinning with whatever video breakdown he has time for before the circus moves to Philadelphia Wednesday night. "We knew this would be a little bit of a process, and this is the first step."
Yes, it was the real first step, one that mattered more than all the empty glorification that preceded it. LeBron and Wade are great players and good friends figuring out how to play together. And yet they put on their socks and shoes amid the same locker-room debris as Udonis Haslem, Eddie House, Joel Anthony and the scores of nondescript worker bees who'll occupy the same space over the next six months. They have to figure each other out -- a "feeling-out process," James called it. Then, all they have to do is figure out the Celtics, Magic and Lakers.
"I know the similarities are there with them and as far as how we got together, but the scenarios are different," Kevin Garnett said. "In order for them to get better, they're going to have to go through some rough days, dog days, and that's part of it. Lord knows, we went through ours, and we learned from it. And I'm pretty sure they'll do the same."
Before the game, in a makeshift interview room set up in a hockey dressing room to accommodate the overflowing media, Spoelstra spoke of embracing the pressure and the expectations. It's all here now, times a million. The Heat play again Wednesday night, but that won't stop the analysts from spending the next 19 hours or so doing what they do. They'll wonder whether Wade's 4-for-16 shooting night was due to rust, his sore hamstring, or what seemed like an obvious lack of feel when he and James were on the floor together. They'll dissect why Miami's best stretch of the game in the third quarter came with James on the floor without Wade or Chris Bosh, who was 3-for-11 with eight points.
They'll want to know how all this is going to work, how long it's going to take, who's going to take this team on his back, and when, and how that will be decided.
This is what they've wrought. This is the beast that they've created.
But if nothing else, the walk out of the Garden was different than it was five months ago. James and Wade climbed down from the dais in the interview room together -- James following Wade, making a left turn back toward the court. They made their way to the family meeting area, where Wade chided former teammate Jermaine O'Neal for joining the Celtics and James lamented having made a wrong turn. Five months ago, he'd gone right, out into the night and on a collision course with the summer that changed the NBA.
"The best thing about this league," James had said during the walk, his head up this time, "is that you have another one tomorrow night."